Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Your Outline Is Your Friend

by Darwin A. Garrison
©2004, Darwin A. Garrison


I will freely admit without illicit female coercion or the covert influence of sharp, pointy objects on my back that I used to be scared of writing outlines.  I feared the rigidity.  I feared the work.  I feared that my story would be an obvious farce that no editor in his right mind would publish.

Now, however, I know my outline to be my friend, my compatriot, my light in the darkness of writer's block, and my refuge in the face of accusations of inconsistency.  All because of a very simple epiphany:

There are two types of outline.

The first is the "editor's outline" that is so feared and despised for reducing our wonderful stories to a few meager sentences that harried publishing professionals can quickly scan and immediately use as justification for round-filing our manuscripts.  The second -- ah, yes -- the second type of outline is something you should understand and love with all your prosaic heart, because it will save your butt over and over again as you write your masterpiece.  I refer to this as the "writer's outline."

Now, I am sure that much has been written about outlining in general.  I am also sure that I have absolutely no intention of doing any research on that at all.  I simply want to present something that works for me, and, if you can use it, more power to you.  If not, well, who needs you?  Saracen!  Infidel!  Unbeliever!  Unclean!

Ah hem...

First off, what is a "writer's outline"?  Nothing more than an organized approach to recording your story idea so that you can find pertinent data quickly, no matter how much time elapses from the birth of the idea to the time you actually get to work on the dratted story.

The outline is not a single document, but rather a set of related documents that define your concept with as much or as little detail as you deem necessary.  This is a key point.  You don't have to write the entire story in some weird form of tree diagram.  You just need to write enough to remind yourself what you were thinking last Thursday.

The structure I've settled upon can be built using computer files, three ring binders, labeled manila folders, or a set of shelves in the kitchen closet known to be free of cats, mice, poltergeists, and other common household pests.  There are seven sections to the 'writer's outline' format that I use.  If you are inclined to add more sections or break things down into finer detail, then you are an overachieving type-A personality and you should seek refuge from stress in Yoga, martial arts, or self-immolation.

The seven sections are:

1) Primary story concept
2) Plot
3) Characters
4) Society
5) World - Geography
6) World - Flora and Fauna
7) World - Technology and/or Magic

This is the framework that I use to keep track of my stories. Each section gets filled with individual notes when my brain engages, which is almost never the same day that the original story idea occurs to me. Now, let's hit all the items with a hammer and see how they squeak:

1) Primary story concept.

This is the idea, the question, the late night burrito nightmare that wakes you at 2:00 AM and encompasses your story.  It is not detailed.  It does not develop your world or your characters.  It is not rigid and unyielding in the face of logic or simplistic questions from five-year old children.  It's just an idea, people!  Don't expect too much of it!

So what do you include in a primary story concept?  First, you give your story a working title to use to name your file directory or binder!  Under the working title, you write a very quick description of your idea that will remind you of what you were thinking at 2:05 AM when you were sitting on the pot trying not to asphyxiate yourself. (Always keep a journal and pen in the bathroom on the back of the toilet or in the rack with the magazines.  Trust me.)

Example:

Working title: Errant Magic

Core Concept:

World where magic is almost completely erratic and, quite frankly, mostly dangerous.  Magic kids shuffled off to 'schools' as soon as household items or family pets begin showing signs of deviant behavior or transmogrification.  Story is about a group of young magic refugees trying to reach a place where they'll be accepted and loved.  Coming of age story and adventure fantasy.

2) Plot

Time is God's way of keeping everything from happening at once and your plot is your way.  When you are first sketching out your ideas, the plot will be very simple.  As you do character development and world development and societal development, the plot tends to detonate like a piñata stuffed with M-80s and cans of silly string.  Keep it simple in the beginning and elaborate as required later to keep track of what your characters are doing to each other, with what, and why.

Example:

Plot outline:

1) Schoolmaster sorcerer dude goes to city walls to aid the defenders.

2) School kids, knowing their teacher's capabilities all too well, git while the gittin's good and escape from the town using a storm drain.

3) Kids decide to travel across the continent to join a mage uncle of one of the older kids.

4) Many adventures happen during which the kids discover they have stronger abilities than their elders.

5) Kids arrive at Uncle's place, but he's buggered off due to the imminent arrival of a barbarian hoard.

6) Local townsfolk come by the 'wizard's' cave desperate for help. Kids pose as 'apprentices' and agree to help.

7) Kids drive off the barbarians, save the town, and become unassailable local icons.  Romantic mushy stuff happens to someone, doesn't matter who.  The end.

3) Characters

One thing that I've noticed about most good stories is that they do not spend an inordinate amount of time dwelling on details of the appearance or personality of their characters up front.  One thing I've noticed about a lot of bad stories is that they do dwell on such details, often using a mirror as a prop.  Do not have your characters admire themselves in a mirror or I will have Guido come to your house and break your keyboard over your head!

That having been said, a cardinal sin of storytelling is having characters change eye color, hair color, physical build, or sexual preference during a tale for no other reason than you forgot and didn't bother to proofread.  The place where such details belong is the character sheet.  Each character should have his/her/its own sheet and you should put as much detail into those sheets as you have time and stomach for.  You should then refer to them often when you write.

Don't fret if you cannot immediately fill in a bunch of detail.  You can add that later as you develop your characters in the story, if need be.

You should not, however, feel compelled to use any of that slumping mound of data at all unless the application of the detail drives the story forward somehow.  Really.  I mean it.  Don't make me call Guido.

Example:

Character Name: Xavier.

Age: Really, really old.

Occupation: Town drunk and magic zookeeper... er, schoolteacher

Hair: Long, dirty; should be white; short stubble beard.

Eyes: Rheumy with brown bits in the middle around the black spot.

Complexion: Yeah, right.  Wrinkles and liver spots, dirt in the cracks.

Teeth: Green. God help me, I don't know why.

Fingernails: Thick, cracked and dirty.

Clothing: Not one stitch that didn't come from the dump.

Shoes: What're those for?

Posture: Stooped.  Bent by years of public abuse and humiliation.

Personality:

Xavier is a severely depressed and lonely man.  He's been the butt of town jokes for almost seventy-five years, and, let's be honest, that much abuse will shatter anyone.  So it's no surprise that he spends most of his time trying to drown reality into peaceful background noise.  The kids take care of themselves anyhow.  All he has to do is collect the monthly town food stipend for his charges and use his limited magical talent to polish silverware for the local gentry to get booze money.  Thank God he's a happy drunk, or the kids would be really messed up.

       

4) Society

Wherever two or more of your characters gather, there will probably be discord and strife based on their societal paradigms and perceived status.  While discord and strife are not what we normally like in a society, it's what societies do best.  Having well developed and consistent societal backgrounds can make stories much more interesting since tales without conflicts are kind of like wheat paste: boring but not bad for hanging wall paper.

Define the social strata, the overall political environment, the status of the Hoochoo pagan religion, the status of dogs owned by Hoochoo pagans, the use of sacred dog excrement in Hoochoo pagan baptismal rite.  Record all the bits of human interaction that you need to explain how your characters view themselves and their place in the world around them.  Once again, however, I will caution you not to 'core dump' this data in your story.  History books are notoriously boring.  Remember that.

Example:

Societal outline of Brinarn:

Government:

Multiple small feudal kingdoms caught in the classic middle-ages style time of conquest for power warfare.  A few villages governed by democratic elections are scattered hither, thither, and yon wherever the land is too poor or too remote for any King or Lord to covet it and all the local thugs have been hanged.  Serfs live around manors.  Towns have mostly freemen governed by appointed Burghers.  Nobody bothers the serfs during wars.  It's all about the towns and the loot.

Religion:

Consists of a truly mixed bag of monotheism, polytheism, animalism, and pyrocutleryism (worship of fire and sharp, pointy things).  Occasionally a prophet from some god or another comes in from the wilderness eating locusts and honeycomb and covered with sackcloth and ash, but such entertainment is usually short lived due to the readily available supply of tar, feathers, stakes, and firewood.  The religions are united in their rejection of all things magical, however.

Note about magic status in Brinarn:

A young child who develops magic in Brinarn is not only an embarrassment to the family, but an immediate threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the entire community.  Magic is not just erratic, but, since people cannot control it or keep it to themselves, it's also downright hazardous to innocent bystanders.  Since most families bond to infants and magic doesn't appear until the kids get close to nine or ten, folks tend toward choosing to send their kids to town sponsored "boarding schools" of 'magic' in the vain hope that the kids will learn to quash their weirdness.  Since Brinarnians are notoriously practical people, all things considered, the moment a child walks out the door for 'school,' most families immediately put out a 'cot for rent' sign and never think of them again.

5) World – Geography

"We not lost, Kemosabe.  We right here.  Trail lost."

Simple step here.  Draw a map.  Don't worry about being artistic.  You can always get an artist to redo it for the book.  Label important places as you write.  When thoughts occur about how the geography plays into the story, write a note about them and slip the note into your binder or closet.

       

Example:

(Not the map part. Use your imagination!)

Angor Mountains:

The Angor Mountains are big, dark, and mysteeeerious (wiggle fingers).  Things live in them -- big, horrifying things with sharp, pointy teeth and paisley tea sets.  The kids have to take a trail through these mountains to get to the sea side village of Godarm where the uncle lives, or lived -- whatever.  They meet many different kinds of local flora and fauna there.

6) World – Flora and Fauna

What good would a world be if you didn't fill it up with lots of interesting, creative, and progressively more hazardous kinds of animals and plants?  Writers who were once biologists or ichthyologists tend to lose their sense of proportion here, just like former actuaries tend to generate behavioral die-roll tables in the society section (resulting in worlds full of schizophrenics, by the way).

Once again, do not feel compelled to go into too much detail.  Just get down what you need to remind yourself of what that cute critter with the bazooka was and keep its yellow tiger stripes clear in your mind.  Not to mention the ivy-type plants that tend to violate virgin princesses who were so foolish to sleep next to mystical streams in the mountains -- hence the princesses' green babies equipped with roots instead of feet.

Example:

Woofrus: 

A woofrus is a small mammal that appears to have the ability to be in two places at once and is preternaturally strong but, fortunately, generally good-natured.  It is shaped somewhat like a raccoon but without stripes and colored a shocking shade of purple with lighter lilac spots.  The little vermin frequently attach themselves to magical humans, apparently drawing sustenance from the mages' power, which doesn't generally bother anyone since most mages can't use their power for beans anyway. Unfortunately, woofrus are also unmitigated raccoon-sized packrats.  What's surprising is how good they are at their illicit collecting considering their natural coloring.  This habit tends to cause all sorts of problems in towns as they return to the mage's home bearing various bits of laundry, tools, wagon wheels, statuary, and, occasionally, complete barmaids.  The only thing that will turn a woofrus vicious is an attempt to remove any of its 'booty' without recompense in sugary confections.  As a result, barmaids in towns known to house mages will often carry immense bags of rock candy.

7) World – Technology and Magic

Let's face it, this is the section where being an engineer or scientist really kicks butt!  Speaking as an engineer, I know I have an unholy advantage over my liberal- and business-educated friends in technical know-how and logical thought patterns, and I delight in it.  Of course, this also probably explains a lot about my knowledge of real life politics, law, religion, and insurance, but I digress.

In this section, you define how the nuts and bolts of your world work.  You decide what your characters have to work with and by what rules they have to abide, which makes you something like Congress and the President combined, but not quite as powerful as Hollywood.  The key here is to be consistent.  If you start departing from your rules, the deviations will show up like beacon lights to your readers.       

Example:

Magic in Brinarn:

The force of magic in Brinarn is born of the earth.  It is like a huge ocean of power constrained by a lack of proper drainage tiles.  There's just something about some people, whether genetic, heuristic, holistic or just plain flat assed random that opens a hole in the magic dike and lets the power come through.  Once a person starts causing random magic, they spend the rest of their life trying to figure out how to plug the dam.  Most mages focus on trying not to turn their bed sheets into lead or bring their nightmare monsters to life as they sleep.  Very accomplished mages may actually learn to do something useful with their power, like polishing silverware or de-stinking outhouses; never anything so dramatic as actually conjuring anything on command or banishing demons.

 

I hope that you've enjoyed my somewhat irreverent romp through my ideas on outlining.  To quickly summarize:

A writer's outline is an organizational tool that an author can use to record story information in a manner that allows fast and easy access to concepts and ideas at a later date and while writing.  The system is flexible and enhances creativity by keeping ideas safe and encouraging consistency.  A writer's outline is also an excellent tool for distilling from your story an editorial outline.

Most science fiction and fantasy stories can be encompassed in seven file headings: Primary story concept, plot, characters, society, world -- geography, world -- flora and fauna, and world -- technology and/or magic.  These are guidelines only and individual authors may wish to customize to suit their particular style.  The point is that these are headers that describe files to hold individual notes that can be added over time.  The actual files may be computer or paper based, as suits the user.

Best of luck with your writing and remember to keep your barmaids well supplied with rock candy!